A Charlotte man’s work to provide a safe space for three people experiencing homelessness led to his arrest Wednesday in a saga he said highlights the struggles of helping some of the city’s most vulnerable people.
Paul Bradley, 65, has volunteered with people experiencing homelessness for 15 years through groups such as Room in the Inn and Roof Above, he said. On cold winter nights, he drives a bus to bring people who need shelter to his church, Paw Creek Presbyterian.
And for the last four years, he’s allowed a small group of people to camp in a wooded area on his commercial property — a former motel on Business Center Drive near the Charlotte airport and Little Rock Road.
“I just have a heart for these people,” he said of his volunteer work.
His system drew little to no attention until early August. That’s when he called Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police to report a break-in at the property. Soon after police visited, Bradley told The Charlotte Observer, he started receiving notices of violations from Charlotte’s Code Enforcement team.
He was cited for using his property “for a campground and for storage” without a permit, a zoning violation, according to a notice Bradley shared with the Observer. He’s also in violation of the city’s non-residential building code ordinance and health and sanitation ordinance.
He has worked with code enforcement to clear up the issues, both sides acknowledge, but blocked inspectors from entering buildings on the property Wednesday morning, prompting his arrest for misdemeanor obstruction.
Bradley said what sparked the charges isn’t the most important part of the story. While he takes issue with how the city got its warrant for Wednesday’s search, he doesn’t want the focus to be on him.
He says the situation proves Charlotte leaders need to rethink how they approach the city’s homelessness crisis.
An arrest, a search and a conversation
Bradley came into Wednesday’s visit with Code Enforcement inspectors knowing it may end with him in handcuffs.
He knew inspectors would come armed with an administrative warrant to search his property signed by a magistrate. But he doesn’t believe that was enough to legally gain access to his property.
Bradley argues the city needed a search warrant signed by a judge under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects citizens “from unreasonable searches and seizures,” because a violation he received included a line saying he could get “a criminal summons” if he didn’t bring his land up to code.
In North Carolina, a magistrate is “an officer of the district court division,” according to the state Judicial Branch. Unlike judges and justices, magistrates are not elected. They’re supervised by the chief district court judge and considered “an independent judicial officer, recognized by the North Carolina Constitution as an officer of the district court.”
“There has been no assertion of any criminal activity on the part of the Bradleys …,” he said in a statement he prepared ahead of Wednesday’s visit to read to the inspectors. “There has been no probable cause which a judge has reviewed and ruled upon.”
Bradley greeted three Code Enforcement staff members and three CMPD officers Wednesday alongside three friends who gathered to support him.
When presented with the warrant, he declined to open the doors to his building, once home to the Bradley Motel owned by his family. When the city officials and officers directed a locksmith to let them in, he stood in front of the door.
That’s when Bradley was handcuffed and placed in a CMPD vehicle.
“It’s all about being a mature person, a mature Christian person and showing respect to people. Especially these code enforcement people,” Bradley said shortly before the city’s team arrived of his plans to go peacefully.
It’s not the first time he’s been arrested at the site: he was taken into custody in 1993 for trying to block grading work for Interstate 85 in front of the then-operating motel, the Observer reported at the time.
Bradley ultimately provided a key to the building Wednesday. He was released from CMPD’s custody after about an hour with a summons to appear in court in October on two misdemeanor charges.
Once freed, Bradley chatted cordially with the code enforcement team, noting that he’s removed a car that was on blocks in the parking lot he was cited for and that he’s brought in a construction dumpster to get debris cleared out.
He also thanked the team for granting him a 30 day extension to get the camp cleared out, a move inspectors said had much to do with Bradley’s willingness to work with them.
“Our goal is voluntary compliance,” Code Enforcement Division Manager Jane Taillon said. “Our goal is for Mr. Bradley to take care of all of the code violations occurring on all three parcels, because he’s got three separate properties, and really in a timely manner.”
As he walked them back to the campsite, where three adults are currently living, Bradley told the inspectors and a CMPD officer he’s working with Roof Above and Hope Haven to come up with a plan to get the people to another safe place.
Nestled in the woods behind the former motel, the campsite still had tents, chairs and other items strewn about Wednesday morning.
Little response from city officials
Days before he was taken into custody, Bradley attempted to address his issues through calls, emails and letters to local officials, he said. He shared with the Observer an email to City Council member Dimple Ajmera and a letter to Judge Elizabeth Trosch, a district court judge in Mecklenburg County.
“I am focused enough to know that this is a matter between me and City Council,” he wrote to Ajmera. “The inspector is doing the job City Council has chartered him to perform.” Bradley went on to write he feels like he’s “being treated as a blight to the City,” despite his history of service as a Scout leader, leader in his church and EMT.
In response to an Observer inquiry, Ajmera directed a reporter to Code Enforcement’s response to Bradley’s email. That response, written by Taillon, outlined the violations against him and said the city “has had lengthy conversations with Mr. Bradley regarding the conditions on the property and the steps needed to bring the property into compliance.”
Bradley also called Charlotte City Attorney Patrick Baker multiple times and left messages but did not get a response by Wednesday morning, he said.
A ‘history of compliance’
In her email, Code Enforcement Manager Taillon told Ajmera that Bradley “has a history of compliance with code.”
“So I would expect any violations on his property will be brought into compliance in a timely manner,” she wrote.
And he’s made progress on bringing his property up to code, the team acknowledged Wednesday.
“We’ve got concerns with the motel and the safety of the structure,” Taillon said of the work still to be done. “We’ve got environmental conditions, health and sanitation violations, which is the neglect, the trash, the debris around the building. And then we’ve got the situation with the homeless camp where we need for him to relocate them.”
Michael Thompson, a longtime friend of Bradley’s who came out Wednesday morning, said it became difficult for Bradley to maintain the property in recent years when he became the primary caretaker for his elderly mother.
If Bradley keeps making progress, inspectors told him Wednesday, he could get another extension to have the camp cleared out completely.
What comes next?
Bradley’s court date is Oct. 16 for the misdemeanor charges he received Wednesday, according to his summons.
In the meantime, he’s started a GoFundMe to try to raise money to help both the people affected by the current situation and the homeless community in Charlotte as a whole. He’s also working with local groups to find help for the people currently living on his land.
Now, he wants to do more to bring attention to the number of people experiencing homelessness in Charlotte and learn more about how to get involved with the city’s homelessness task force.
“My faith is stout enough to suggest that you have skill sets, and you’re put in positions to use those skill sets,” he said. “If you don’t use those skill sets, they go away. And I don’t know what skill sets I’ve got that put me in this position, and I don’t know what I can do down the road, but again, I hope that I can infuse some common sense.”